Translating for the stage

Barbara Christ`
© Barbara walzer

By Barbara Christ

Around fifteen years ago, I was delighted to be commissioned to prepare new translations into German of several plays by the American writer Thornton Wilder, including Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). Both plays had been translated by Hans Sahl shortly after premiering in the US, and both translations were staged for the first time in Zurich - Unsere kleine Stadt in 1939, Wir sind noch einmal davongekommen in 1944.

It is an honor to receive a commission like this, and it was unknown territory for me since until then I had always translated plays of which there was as yet no German version.

I was of course familiar with the translations of Thornton Wilder’s plays by his close friend Hans Sahl from my studies and my time as a dramaturg in the theatre, though I wouldn’t have remembered any details about them. I decided not to read them again before beginning my work, in order to avoid having the translator’s voice eclipse that of the author.
Once my translations were finished, I looked at Sahl’s again, out of respect and curiosity and also to verify my own reading of Wilder’s work. I was taken aback at how different my texts were from those of my admired predecessor – especially in the case of The Skin of our Teeth.

Whereas I had perceived Wilder’s language in that play as forceful and direct, somewhat flippant and exceedingly theatrical, the language of Sahl’s translation struck me as restrained, deliberate, moderate – qualities I had not seen in Wilder’s play. I felt the language of the translation had been greatly influenced by the terrible events taking place in Germany and Europe at that time. The American author had evidently observed all that from a greater distance, spatially as well as emotionally, and possibly as a result of that perspective, he mixed strong theatrical images and dialogue with drastic irony or comedy and certainly with the occasional corny joke. On the other hand, we know that author and translator worked together closely – so there must have been understanding and consensus. That was my impression considering this sixty or so years later.

Clearly the era in which both were writing influenced not only Thornton Wilder’s play but also Hans Sahl’s translation. Just as the new millennium influenced mine in 2006. I’d love to be able to read a new translation from 2070.

That translations reflect the times in which they’re created is of course a truism. But since then I’ve been preoccupied with the question of what exactly affects my work as a translator – what determines the voices I hear and reproduce. I’ve been expressly trying to visualize the influence the current era has on a translator’s work. And perhaps this is where we can find an answer to the riddle of why translations seem to age more quickly than does the original text
Yet distance in time isn’t the only factor in the context of translation. Especially for those of us who translate contemporary drama, distance in terms of place perhaps plays an even larger role – simply because the plays we translate are usually relatively new. They don’t come from a chronologically distant realm, but from a spatially distant one – geographically, mentally, artistically.

I shall try and illustrate the process of dealing with that distance with reference to an example – David Greig’s play for young people The Monster in the Hall, for which Greig and I, as playwright and translator, were awarded the 2014 German Theatre for Young People Prize. The play – whose German title was simply Monster – takes place in a small town in Scotland and is, in a sense, a comedy. It revolves around a young girl called Duck and her father. The two of them are living in a precarious situation – Duck’s father is seriously ill, and they have reason to fear that the authorities might take Duck into care. Father and daughter have to fight for the right to continue living together – and David Greig captures that struggle through theatrical images and in a style that’s both heartbreaking and hilarious.

When I start work on a translation, I usually first write a rough draft – whose language might not even deserve to be called ''German''. I follow the structure of the source language as I try to find and hear the voices that are speaking to me in the original text. In what place, out of what situation and mood do they speak? To what degree does that manifest itself in the language? How does it reveal itself in the interactions among the characters? This play foregrounds the desperation of daughter and father experiencing existential distress – which they respond to with boundless courage and full of love and solidarity. And all that comes through against the background of a wonderfully humane and empathetic humor that’s characteristic of David Greig’s work.

In the second draft of the translation, images gradually come to the fore. In this case they’re images of the Scottish landscape where Duck’s mother died in a motorbike accident. The world of the novel Duck is writing, inspired by gloomy computer games with bombastic medieval settings. The dreariness of the supermarket where Duck works as a cashier. The cramped conditions, the chaos, the smell of the tiny flat she lives in with her father. Images create an atmosphere that I perceive, explore, name and subsequently endeavour to replicate for a German-speaking audience.
In later drafts, I find and develop a language for the play: a language intended to convey what I experience as the location or climate of the original – geographically, mentally, artistically. In this phase of the translation process, I establish contact with the author, asking very practical questions about comprehension, checking that I’ve understood correctly, and that what I discern is also what he or she wrote. The medium for this exchange is an extensive email correspondence.

I’m very grateful when writers give themselves over to this kind of dialogue – which they almost always do. Since they mostly don’t speak German, they of course cannot decide how one might best translate a particular word or passage. But I can explain to them the spectrum of possible choices I’m considering, and they can open other possible meanings, and in doing so contribute to the precision of my translation.

This part of the process also requires me to make practical decisions concerning communication and comprehension. If I’m going to leave the play in its geographical and cultural context – as is usually the case – I must pay attention to many details. Can I expect a German-speaking audience to have any idea what this Scottish landscape is like? Or any notion of this kind of computer game? In some places I may have to carefully adapt. But how far can I go in trying to facilitate understanding without intervening in the play?

It’s my personal and professional credo never to take a play out of its cultural context. It’s my credo to leave it in the place where it was devised, conceived, and written to be, and to provide points of access through work on the language. That’s a tightrope walk, a balancing act that has to be defined anew with each translation project.

It’s hard to name general criteria for the work of translation, since every play follows its own individual and special set of rules. Every translation project is – in general and in detail – an isolated case, every original poses particular challenges and requires an appropriate approach to be developed for that instance.

The experience one gains over the years is of course very helpful, as are various kinds of methods and tools that one can by all means make note of, clarify, discuss, and utilize. Yet the geographic, mental, artistic place of each text has to be defined from scratch with each new translation.

As I’ve thought about my experience translating Thornton Wilder’s plays it has become clear that I’m nowhere near being able to control the communication process I just described. Many things have had an impact on me, as on all of us, and we’re not always aware of what’s influencing us. But we can try to shed light on it, we can work on it and with it, use it, convey it. Through translation, through work on the language, we can perhaps make things accessible that were closed off to ourselves and to others.

Barbara Christ studied literature and theatre then worked as a dramaturg and an editor. She has been translating plays and prose from English since 1997, including work by Jami Attenberg, David Greig, Noah Haidle, Doris Lessing, Anthony Neilson and Simon Stephens. Since 2012 she’s been leading seminars in the context of various translation workshops, as was the case with the „Contemporary German-language drama in South Asian languages“ project.